The compact sport/utility segment is one of the fastest-growing areas of the market. Why? Because these little workhorses appeal to a wide range of buyers. Younger generations want a vehicle that can cart friends around in carlike comfort, yet carry a ton of cargo for weekend getaways and fit into a compact parking space at Starbucks. Small families equally find small SUVs perfect load-haulers and kid-carriers. If you appreciate the efficiency and cleverness of affordably priced, do-it-all vehicles, check out compact sport/utilities. We did, putting the Saturn VUE, Ford Escape, and Honda CR-V under the Motor Trend comparison-test microscope.
Getting To Know You
For '02, Saturn enters the compact SUV fray with the all-new VUE, which boasts several firsts in its category, including electrically assisted steering, an optional continuously variable transmission (mated to a 2.2L/143-hp I-4 with either front- or all-wheel drive), and the use of polymer body panelsa Saturn trademark.
Fitted with the optional iron block/aluminum head 3.0L/181-hp V-6 with five-speed autobox, our AWD tester was a sprightly, if buzzy, performer. It clocked a 0-60 time of 8.6 sec and 16.6 sec at 83.3 mph in the quarter mile, although we noted severe torque steer under hard acceleration. This phenomenon usually doesn't appear in all-wheel-drive vehicles, but with Saturn's on-demand AWD, which sends power to the rear wheels only when front slip is detected, the force can wrench the steering wheel from your hands (read: immediate right-lane change) if you aren't careful.
Equipped with non-ABS 11.7-in. discs front and 9.8-in. drums rear (anti-lock brakes are an option), the VUE posted the best 60-0 stopping distance of 128 ft, with easy modulation and just a few chirps from the tires. This bettered previously generated ABS-equipped numbers by 3 ft.
Ford's Escape arrived on the scene last year, and examples have been flying off dealer lots ever since. Although the most expensive of our test, at $25,840, the Escape also came with midsize features not available on its competitors: leather seating surfaces, a class II tow hitch, and a locking center differential. Base models have a 2.0L Zetec I-4 that provides 127 hp and 196 lb-ft of torque. With the standard five-speed manual, it's a decent choice for those who want good fuel economy and front drive. Our bright-yellow Escape had the optional 3.0L/201-hp iron block/aluminum head Duratec V-6 (with a five-speed automatic) and optional Control Trac II 4WD. Of the three tested here, the Ford system is the most transparent, biasing drive to the front wheels on dry pavement, then sending power to the rear when the mechanism senses a shaft-speed difference in the transfer case's viscous coupling.
Unlike the rest of the trio, the Escape's system is lockable, providing a 4x4 high mode for light off-roading. Acceleration is brisk (with just a hint of torque steer), and upshifts are a bit on the soft side. With its best-in-test power rating, we expected the Ford to rule the acceleration tests. That wasn't the case, however, as it posted a second-best 8.5-sec run to 60 and a 16.3 at 85.4-mph pass in the quarter mile. Same for braking: Its ABS-assisted 10.9-in. front discs and 9.0-in. rear drums ground the Escape to a panic stop from 60 mph in 132 feet.
When you set out to redesign a three-year best-in-class seller, you'd better raise the bar by more than a few notches. While the CR-V has been with us since '97, this second-generation 'ute is new from the ground up. With increased performance, additional interior space, enhanced utility, and bolder styling than its predecessor's, Honda is looking to increase its sales lead. As the most affordable in our test (at $21,940), the upscale CR-V EX comes full of standard equipment: removable, folding picnic table; waterproof rear storage well; reclining rear seats; moonroof; six-disc in-dash CD changer; and full-size spare tire.
Available in base LX and up-style EX trim levels, both are fitted with Honda's new alloy block/head 2.4L/160-hp I-4 with i-VTEC, up 14 hp from last year. Torque is up 29 lb-ft to 162. With either a five-speed manual or optional four-speed slushbox, Honda coaxes V-6-like performance from an efficient I-4. Manually rowing gears in the CR-V, we almost felt we were driving a Civic Si. Our track testing said we were fairly close: From a standstill, 60 mph came in a scant 8.1 sec and the quarter mile passed in 16.1 sec at 85.2 mph. Who says a four-banger can't keep up with bigger boys?
Although the CR-V is the only one of the trio equipped with discs at all four corners (11.1 in. front and rear), it took the longest distance to stop: 133 ft. The ABS was busy, but provided consistent, linear stopping without a fuss.
Navigating the Urban Jungle
All of these sport/utes ride on carlike platforms, so we expected them to handle substantially better than their full-frame brethren. We weren't disappointed, but there were notable discoveries. Electric steering makes its SUV debut in the VUE, and while we're familiar and impressed by systems offered by Honda (and sibling Acura), Saturn's variant feels like it's still in the development stage. There's a definite ratcheting effect between driver input and system output, and feel through the wheel is numb with vague response. Think about playing the early '80s video game, Pong: It's slow on the uptake, then shoots into overkill before you want it to.
The VUE may have won our slalom test (at 63.4 mph), but as Senior Road Test Editor Chris Walton notes, "Don't let the numbers fool you. This isn't the slalom champ. With no feedback from the steering, you have to memorize how much input affects a directional change and repeat the process from cone to cone. The tires earned the time, not the steering or the chassis."
In the canyons, the VUE wallows through corners with a significant amount of body roll, but its grippy 235/65SR16 M+S Bridgestone Dueler H/Ts stick well once the suspension takes a firm set. On the highway, we're impressed with the Saturn's compliant ride, which effectively quells road irregularities trying to enter the cabin. Saturn openly claims the VUE wasn't designed with off-road driving in mind, yet its softly sprung suspension and light-duty AWD system do allow for soft-road fun. Gravel and dirt roads are easily traversed. Just don't drive over anything more than 7.25 in. high, or nasty sounds will emanate from below as the VUE's underbelly makes contact.
The Escape is equally at home in dirt as on pavement. Leaving the AWD system in automatic mode, power transfer is practically invisible, its Continental Contitrac 235/70TR16 rubber clawing the whole way. Dial into 4x4 mode, and with its generous ground clearance (10 inches), it has no problem tackling light-duty exploring.
Off the trail and back on the road, the Ford is extremely predictable in turns, with precise steering and smooth transitions. "Absolutely confident, catchable, and had it been shod with better tires, it could go even quicker," noted Walton after posting a 62.6-mph pass through the 600-ft slalom. It doesn't ride as plushly as the VUE, but the Escape's suspension keeps the driver well informed of what's happening underfoot, without jolting occupants.
Agile is the ideal description of the CR-V's suspension tuning. "There's a lot going on with the CR-V," wrote Walton. "Weight transfer is followed by body roll, then power transfer with a little tire lift, and it still comes off as fun." It posted a decent 61.9-mph pass through the cones, and, in the canyons, stuck well in the corners with its 205/70TR15 Bridgestone Dueler H/T rubber. With a decent amount of body roll, the Honda takes a good set, gently transferring weight without flopping over, as the VUE tends to do.
During aggressive handling maneuvers, the real-time AWD system didn't seem as seamless as the Escape's, which was confirmed when we hit gravel roads. We could feel the sudden push of power being delivered to the rear wheels while drifting through the corners. Heading off on a well-trekked trail is possible in the CR-V, but with only 8.25 in. of ground clearance, it's best to stay off the big rocks.
At first blush, you'd swear an overly quirky interior designer penned the VUE's cabin: Its multi-textured-and-colored parts easily throw you into sensory overload. There are no fewer than three separate textures on the door panels and three different colors (ours included black, chocolate, and tan) vying for your attention. It's high fashion, to say the least, and one look drew either praise or condemnation from our staffers.
The satin-black waterfall center stack breaks up the smooth lines of the tan dash pad that houses stereo and climate controls. The gear selector protruding from the bottom of the column isn't as smooth in operation as we'd like, and its clunky nature recalled units found in vehicles 10 years its senior. We also aren't fond of the placement of window switchgear, surrounding the gear selector. With the lever in Drive, it's nearly impossible for the driver to put the passenger-window down without reaching over the stalk and contorting the wrist.
The VUE's fabric-covered front and rear seats provide good lateral grip in cornering, but driver and passenger buckets lack necessary lumbar and thigh support for long stints. If you find a park bench a comfortable place to sit, you'll like the VUE's rear seat, which is rather upright in nature, without a recline function like the others.
Loading goods in the 30.3-cu-ft cargo area (63.5 with the rear seats folded) is easy, with a low load floor. We wish Saturn had integrated a hatch into the glass for stashing of small items. An innovative pop-up organizer helps keep small gear in place and won't allow grocery sacks to slide as a cargo net might.
"Lacking" is one adjective that continually came to mind as our staff rotated through the Saturn, especially when it comes to ingress/egress or overhead passenger grab handles (there aren't any) and useable cubby space (which is minimal at best). The opposite is true for the Escape, which boasts dual A-pillar grab handles and one overhead for each outboard passenger (six total). Cubby space is also plentiful, with map pockets in the front door panels that easily accommodated a Thomas Guide, four trays for driver and passenger, plus a cavernous center console for stowing Mom's purse.
When it comes to interior design and layout, Ford has hit the nail on the head with a 20-lb sledge. Sit in the Escape for two minutes and study the interior, close your eyes, and you'll have no problem finding all the oversize switchgear. Our only complaint: When the column-mounted gear selector is in Drive, the handle obscures some of the radio functions.
We found the Escape's white-face gauges easy to look at, just as the leather-trimmed bucket seats were easy on other parts of our anatomy: Nice and cushy for long trips, with manually adjustable lumbar and excellent thigh support. Once you get the Ford into the canyons, you'll wish for additional lateral support, as there isn't enough to keep you in place. Chances are you won't hear many complaints from the rear couch, as head/foot/legroom are first rate, plus with the adjustable rake, taking a snooze back there isn't a problem.
Ford wisely included a dual-opening rear hatch into its Escape pod. Hefting items into the low-load-lift 33.0-cu-ft cargo hold (64.8 with rear seats tucked away) is a snap. Engineers also wisely crafted dual sets of receptacles for the removable cargo cover, enabling it for use while the rear seats are reclined.
The rear of the CR-V is also a deep-sleep capsule when its 60/40-split bench is in the lounge position. Two burly gents will fit comfortably, with lots of head- and legroom, but while it has more cushion than the VUE back seat, it isn't as plush as the Escape's for extended drives.
Up front, the CR-V's seats provide a high level of lateral and thigh support, but the lack of adequate lumbar padding left one of our drivers begging for additional support. If there's one thing we've come to appreciate from Honda, it's first-rate interior fit and finish, and the CR-V delivers. While some might find the solid color and plastic texture a bit boring, we were impressed with the consistency of materialsa rarity in vehicles at this price point. Honda's clever dash design slowly won us over, its edgy styling (especially the emergency brake masquerading as an interior grab handle) screaming Gen-Y at us older folks.
Loading gear into the back of the CR-V can be challenging with its side-hinged rear door: Park on a downhill slope, and you'll have the rear door slamming you into another zip code. The pop-up glass hatch is appreciated but only marginally useful, as the opening is small, and you have to lean over the exterior-mounted spare tire to gain access.
Sizing Things Up
Saturn arrived late at the SUV party, and you might expect it to have done its homework before joining the masses to raise the compact sport/utility benchmark. However, the VUE comes off as a quick entry into the segment and slides cleanly under the bar set by its competition.
Then, there are the Honda and Ford, and choosing a winner is no easier than splitting hairs. Both provide commodious interiors, excellent handling, and potent powertrains. But the Ford is more of a utility player, with its higher tow rating, family-friendly interior, cargo accessibility, and better off-road prowess. So that's where we'd place our down payments.
It's like choosing a date for the prom: Each of these beauties offers you some appealing attributes and others you could do without. The Saturn looks great on the surface, but dig down deeper and you'll find some deficienciesthe transmission's gearing is poorly spaced and material quality is lacking. Like most Honda vehicles, the CR-V won't offend you with its looks, and it proved the most athletic of the trio. But its lack of two cylinders becomes a factor when carrying passengers or towing. With its girl-next-door looks, the Ford was certainly the most attractive vehicle of the group. Its V-6 powerplant offers real-world performance for towing or hauling passengers and cargo, and it comes mated to a transmission that works in harmony with the engine. While the interior isn't breathtaking, it's functional in design, and it's the only one to offer both manual and automatic settings for its AWD system. Ms. Escape, would you do me the honor? Neil G. Chirico
The Honda completely surprised me, with great bang for the buck, catchy styling, and an I-4 that feels more like a V-6. I'm still not fond of the swinging rear-hatch door, and my wife wasn't pleased with having to lean over a spare tire to retrieve groceries through the rear-hatch glass. Strike the Honda. The VUE is perfect for repeat Saturn buyers or those who want a hassle-free buying experience. Its interior colors and textures are too busy for my taste, and the seats just don't offer enough support for my frame. Throw in the excessive torque steer under acceleration, and I'm looking for another "View." That leads us to the Ford: a consummate package that doesn't do anything perfectly, but does everything quite well. It has the most trailering capacity, has selectable 4WD, holds enough cargo for a family outing, has the most comfortable seats, and looks good in the process. It may be the most costly of the bunch (by $2465), but it's well worth the few extra payments. S.M.
Still the One
Running these three mini-SUVs up and down high-elevation mountain roads and back and forth over multilane super-highways made me appreciate how nimble and responsive their breed has become over the years. With that said, Honda's high-output I-4 feels like a V-6, while Saturn's V-6 works like a strongish four-banger. Then, right in the middle, was the predictably proficient, dutifully alert, Ford Escape. I almost wanted to be bored with the Escape, having spent a considerable amount of time driving them over the last few years, and (ashamed to say) half wanting to make the switch to something new and exciting. The Saturn was too "exciting" with its razor-body edges and dull-as-a-spoon electronic steering (the technology is getting there, but not just yet). The new CR-V, although better in just about every performance and handling way, seems obsessed with storage cubbies and other secret hiding places. But it's still too small (small tires, small interior, small seats) for the category. So there's the Ford. Vanilla good looks notwithstanding, its thoughtfully spacious interior layout and smoothly grippy all-wheel-drive system (the cheapest vehicle around with a manual-locking 4x4 switch) make the Escape the standard-setter for the class. Mark Williams